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History of Aromatherapy and Essential Oils

History of Aromatherapy in Western Civilisation

Foreword – The History of Aromatherapy and Essential Oils:


The roots of aromatherapy, or the history of aromatherapy in prehistoric times, likely extend back to the Upper Paleolithic period (40,000 to 50,000 years ago), evidenced by archaeological findings such as stone-lined pits discovered in Israel. These pits, presumed to be used for boiling water, rendering fat or pressing olives, hint at early experimentation with aromatic plant extracts. The process of cooking vegetables, herbs, and roots in these pits would have released various aromas, sparking curiosity and exploration among our ancient ancestors.
Early humans, intuitively drawn to the aromatic properties of plants, would have discovered their medicinal benefits. They may have applied plant materials to wounds or inhaled steam from boiling herbs to alleviate respiratory ailments. The practice of combining rendered fat with aromatic herbs likely resulted in healing ointments used for respiratory issues, skin or wound care.
The association between certain dried plants and ceremonial practices is well-documented, underscoring the connection between aromatics, healing, and worship. Although the term “aromatherapy” was coined in 1935, the practice itself likely dates back to the dawn of human civilization, deeply ingrained in early rituals and medicinal traditions.

Essential Oils

The history of distilled essential oils is shrouded in ancient experimentation and discovery. While the specifics of distillation techniques vary, the phenomenon of steam condensation has been observed and utilized since antiquity. Channel Rim Devices (A form of a ‘still’) were found in an excavation at Tepe Gawra in North Western Iraq ( Ancient Mesopotamia), in levels going back to the 4th millennium BCE.

In 350 BCE,  Aristotle wrote the following in his manuscript called ‘Meteorology’:

‘Salt water when it turns into vapour becomes sweet, and the vapour does not form salt water when it condenses again. This I know by experiment. The same thing is true in every case of the kind: wine and all fluids that evaporate and condense back into a liquid state become water. They all are water modified by a certain admixture, the nature of which determines their flavour.’

Desalination  using this method is a crude form of distillation. It seems very likely that as knowledge of desalination techniques spread, individuals began to experiment with capturing the aromatic properties of boiled plants – this seems to be a sensible extrapolation.

Evidence suggests that distillation apparatuses were independently developed in various regions, leading to the random discovery of distillation methods worldwide.

This narrative primarily focuses on the history of aromatherapy and essential oils within Western civilization, acknowledging the influence of Asian and Egyptian cultures in this evolving practice. While aromatherapy and essential oils were undoubtedly utilized in many other ancient civilizations, this discussion centers on their development and impact in the Western context.

On this page

China and India
Arabian empire
The Dark Ages
The Renaissance

Modern Day



The History of Aromatherapy and Essential oils in Ancient Egypt

In ancient Egypt, aromatic substances held sacred significance and practical utility in medicine, hygiene, and religious rituals. Early Egyptians documented their use of resins, oleo resins, and aromatic herbs in papyri and temple inscriptions, providing valuable insights into their understanding of plant-based medicine and our knowledge of the history of aromatherapy in this period would be poorer without this.

General – The History of Aromatherapy and Essential Oils in Ancient Egypt

Scented Head Cones Ancient Egypt

Images have been found where cones were attached to the heads of the participants of banquets. There is a belief that these cones were made of beeswax or rendered animal fat. The wax or fat would melt and cool the individual and would possibly contain plant material or extracts of plant material to impart a pleasing aroma. One wonders if these images contribute any factual evidence to the history of aromatherapy in this period.

Hygiene and cleanliness seem to have been very important in everyday Egyptian life and perfumes and deodorants obtained from herbs and resins are mentioned.

A perfume incense known as ‘Kyphi’ is frequently mentioned, and although the recipe could differ hugely, the recipe seems to have formed a paste that could be processed into incense or combined with other ingredients to form an unguent or a form of perfume for the body.

A recipe for Kyphi is known to include frankincense, myrrh, mastic (Pistacia lentiscus) pine resin, cinnamon, cardamon, saffron, juniper and mint. This could have been used during religious rites or by the Pharoah and nobility.
The ‘Kyphi” recipe could differ according to which god was being honoured and where it was going to be used.
‘Kyphi’ could be burnt over hot coals in religious ceremonies and could be used by the nobility and the wealthy to scent a room, to bring peaceful sleep and to keep insects at bay.

Any history of aromatherapy must include the use of perfumes and fragrances:

Perfumes and deodorants were created using crushed cardamon pods, lilies, roses, berries, and other floral ingredients with honey as a base. Beeswax or rendered animal fat could also have made a base for an unguent or fragrance including herbs, herbal essences, or resins. Mixtures were made of herbal essences to ward off insects, to use as an ointment to help the healing of wounds, in ceremonial practices and in medication.

The Book of the Dead” contains a spell (spell 125), which prohibits one from speaking the spell unless the speaker was clean and anointed with the oil of myrrh.

The relationship between healing and religion was not usually split, and the use of incenses and specific ceremonial herbal aromatics have been found to have been used when healing the sick.

Perfumes, fragrances, and various herbal preparations would have been traded, and ancient Egyptians trade records show the import of aromatics from the land of Phut (Libya today), Persia, Mesopotamia, and Arabia.


The earliest evidence of distillation in ancient Egypt seems to be found in Roman Egypt in the 1st century CE, which causes speculation of essential oil distillation together with the creation of distilled alcohol.

Perfumes in Ancient Egypt

Perfumes occupied a central role in ancient Egyptian society and form an integral part of the history of aromatherapy.
Perfumes, fragrances and incense served as symbols of luxury, status, and divine favour.

Perfumery was elevated to an art form, with skilled artisans blending aromatic oils, resins, and botanical extracts to create exquisite fragrances for personal adornment and religious ceremonies.

Egyptian perfumes were crafted using a wide range of botanical ingredients, including myrrh, frankincense, lotus, jasmine, and rose. These aromatic substances were often infused into oils, balms, and unguents, which were applied to the skin, hair, and clothing to impart a pleasant scent and ward off unpleasant odours.

The use of perfumes extended beyond personal grooming to encompass spiritual purification and ritualistic practices. Perfume offerings were made to the gods in temple ceremonies, where fragrant incense and scented oils were burned as offerings to honour the divine and invoke blessings upon the worshipers.

As discussed above, one of the most famous Egyptian perfumes that is well documented in the history of aromatherapy for this period was the Kyphi blend, a complex mixture of aromatic resins, herbs, and spices.
Kyphi was revered for its soothing aroma and therapeutic properties, believed to promote relaxation, induce prophetic dreams, and ward off evil spirits. It was often burned as incense during religious rituals and funerary rites, symbolizing the transition from life to the afterlife.

How Incense Played a Role in the History of Aromatherapy in Ancient Egypt

Incense played a vital role in ancient Egyptian religious rituals and funerary practices, where it was believed to facilitate communication with the gods and ensure the deceased’s safe passage to the afterlife.
Aromatic resins such as myrrh, frankincense, and kyphi were burned as offerings on temple altars and within tomb chambers, filling the air with fragrant smoke and purifying the sacred space.
Incense offerings were an integral part of daily temple rituals, where priests would ignite aromatic resins on censers to create a sacred ambiance and invoke divine blessings. The act of burning incense was seen as a form of worship, symbolizing the ascent of prayers and petitions to the heavens.

In funerary practices, incense played a dual role as both a purifying agent and a means of honouring the deceased. Fragrant resins were burned during mummification ceremonies to mask the odour of decomposition and imbue the body with a pleasant scent. Incense was also included among the grave goods placed in tombs, ensuring that the deceased would enjoy the aroma of sacred offerings in the afterlife.


The Smithsonian Institution reports that the earliest evidence they find of intentional mummification dates back to around 2600 BCE.
Sem priests of Ptah, the Egyptian god of Art and Creation, are said to have performed mummification of the dead, following the belief that the spirit of the deceased needed a body to reside in.

Aromatic oils played a vital part in the preservation techniques and provide a macabre twist to the history of aromatherapy and essential oils in Ancient Egypt.

There appear to have been three types of mummification practices, which varied based on the status and wealth of the deceased or their family, and whether they were in favour with the gods or not. Mummification was primarily a religious practice involving the use of amulets, spells, salts, oils, and oleoresins. However, Herodotus, a famous ancient Greek historian who lived from c. 484 BCE to c. 425 BCE, reported that there were groups of men in Egypt who made mummification their profession.

The mummification process included the use of various substances:

• The body was typically preserved in Natron, which is composed of mineral salts, mainly consisting of sodium carbonate.
• Different resins were utilized in the process, as identified through GC-MS analysis of samples from mummies. These included coniferous resin (possibly from juniper, pine, or cedar), resin of mastic trees (Pistacia lentiscus var. Chia), and oleo-gum resin of Myrrh from Somalia and Southern Arabia.
• Various oils and blends were also identified through GC-MS analysis of mummy samples. These included a mix of oil of turpentine and tar, as well as an enema of cedar or juniper oil.
Bitumen, also known as pitch, was another substance used in the mummification process.
• Historical reports suggest the use of cinnamon oil, cassia, henna dye from the henna plant, honey, and gum Arabic as adhesives or additional elements in the mummification process.

History of Aromatherapy and Essential Oils – Ancient Egyptian Medical Treatments and Practices

Ancient Egyptians possessed a sophisticated understanding of medicinal plants and their therapeutic properties, as evidenced by the extensive use of herbal remedies in medical treatments. This knowledge contributed to what we know of the history of aromatherapy in this period.

Physicians, known as “healers of the soul and body,” relied on a vast pharmacopoeia of botanical ingredients to treat a wide range of ailments, from minor injuries to chronic diseases.

Medical papyri, such as the Ebers Papyrus and the Edwin Smith Papyrus, contain detailed descriptions of herbal remedies (providing great insight when studying the history of aromatherapy), surgical techniques, and diagnostic methods employed by ancient Egyptian physicians.
These texts also provide valuable insights into the medical knowledge and practices of the time, revealing the Egyptians’ mastery of pharmacology and anatomy.

Herbal medicines were prepared in various forms, including infusions, decoctions, ointments, and poultices, each tailored to the specific needs of the patient and the nature of their illness. Commonly used medicinal plants included aloe vera, garlic, juniper, and willow bark, which were valued for their analgesic, anti-inflammatory, and antimicrobial properties.

In addition to herbal remedies, ancient Egyptian physicians employed other therapeutic modalities such as massage, acupuncture, and hydrotherapy to promote healing and alleviate symptoms. Surgical procedures, including trepanation, wound closure, and amputation, were performed with remarkable skill and precision, demonstrating the Egyptians’ advanced medical knowledge and surgical techniques.

Medical care in ancient Egypt was provided by a diverse array of healthcare practitioners, including physicians, priests, midwives, and healers. These individuals worked collaboratively to diagnose illnesses, administer treatments, and promote the well-being of their patients, drawing upon both scientific knowledge and spiritual beliefs.
Physicians, trained in the medical arts, were highly respected members of society, serving the royal court, temples, and private households. They employed empirical observation, diagnostic skills, and therapeutic interventions to address the physical and spiritual needs of their patients, adhering to ethical codes of conduct and professional standards.

Priests, as intermediaries between the divine and the mortal realm, played a crucial role in healing rituals and religious ceremonies. They invoked the aid of gods and goddesses associated with health and fertility, offering prayers, sacrifices, and ritualistic purifications to appease the deities and ensure the success of medical treatments.

Midwives, skilled in obstetrics and gynaecology, attended to women during childbirth and provided prenatal and postnatal care. They possessed intimate knowledge of herbal remedies and childbirth techniques, guiding mothers through the birthing process.

Summary – The History of Aromatherapy and Essential Oils in Ancient Egypt

We know that a process of enfleurage and maceration of herbs was common in ancient Egypt.
We also know that Egypt traded with countries that distilled essential oils – evidence was found of distillation vessels in Mesopotamia (Channel Rim Devices) and there was thriving trade between Mesopotamia and Egypt.
The perfume called Kyphi was a major part of religious ritual in Ancient Egypt – the Kyphi used by the temples was very expensive and certain aromatic herbal ingredients, mostly exotic resins, were obtained through trade.

Kyphi and other aromatic preparations were commonly used throughout ancient Egypt to scent rooms and made part of the daily hygiene process of high-ranking individuals.

It seems as if Egyptians of every class did their best to practice hygiene and to use fragrances and deodorants, even if it was just using a mixture of honey and crushed cardamon seeds, or simply vigorously rubbing the body with fragrant leaves or flowers after a dip in the Nile – obviously avoiding the crocodiles and hippo’s!


China and India

The History of Aromatherapy and Essential Oils in Ancient India

Ayurvedic Medicine

India’s rich historical tradition has a huge influence on the history of aromatherapy and encompasses a plethora of aromatic treasures derived from plant extracts, as elucidated in ancient Sanskrit hymns and poems known as the Vedas, dating back over 3000 years. These revered texts not only serve as a repository of spiritual wisdom but also document the extensive use of perfumes and herbal substances in religious ceremonies and rituals.
Throughout antiquity, India stood as a beacon of olfactory excellence, renowned for its production of exquisite perfumes, exotic unguents, and medicinal elixirs. Drawing from the country’s abundant biodiversity, ancient practitioners skillfully employed aromatic plants and herbs to craft fragrant concoctions that captivated the senses and nourished the spirit.
Among the myriad aromatic treasures of ancient India, sandalwood and jasmine emerge as emblematic examples. Sandalwood, prized for its rich, woody fragrance, was revered for its cooling and soothing properties, making it a coveted ingredient in perfumes, incense, and aromatic oils. Similarly, jasmine, with its intoxicating floral scent, adorned sacred spaces with fragrant garlands and infused ceremonial offerings with its uplifting aroma.

Ayurvedic Medicine

Ancient Indian Aromatherapy

Ayurveda, India’s timeless system of medicine, embodies a holistic approach to health and wellness deeply rooted in the use of aromatic essences, herbal extracts, and essential oils. This ancient healing tradition, dating back thousands of years, continues to thrive today, offering a holistic path to well-being that embraces the therapeutic potential of nature’s aromatic bounty. The healing practices and tradition of Ayurveda provides rich material for anyone who has an interest in the history of aromatherapy, as ancient practices are still in use today.

Distillation mentioned in Ayurvedic texts

The art of distillation, employed in India as early as the early centuries CE, found mention in the Hindu Ayurvedic text ‘Charaka Samhita,’ revealing ancient methods used to extract fragrant essences such as Attar (meaning: distilled essential oil) from botanical sources. This sophisticated technique allowed for the preservation and concentration of aromatic compounds, enriching India’s aromatic repertoire and facilitating their widespread use in medicinal and spiritual practices.

Religious Practices

In religious ceremonies and spiritual rituals, aromatics played a pivotal role, serving as offerings to purify sacred spaces, invoke divine blessings, and elevate the spiritual experience of worshipers. Incense made from aromatic resins, such as frankincense and myrrh, filled temples with their sacred fragrance, creating an ambiance of sanctity and reverence.

Conclusion – The History of Aromatherapy and Essential Oils in Ancient India

Thus, India’s ancient heritage is intricately intertwined with the aromatic treasures of the natural world, spanning from the sacred rituals of yore to the holistic healing practices that endure to this day. Through the ages, these aromatic traditions have left an indelible mark on the cultural tapestry of India and continue to enrich global aromatic traditions with their timeless allure.



The History of Aromatherapy and Essential Oils in Ancient China

Chinese Medical Chart

Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), still extensively practiced today, operates on the principle that the life force (Qi) should remain undisturbed in its flow. Qi, believed to circulate throughout the body, maintains a delicate balance, and any disruption to this flow can lead to disease and illness.


In the annals of Chinese history, two legendary figures stand out for their contributions to herbal medicine: Emperor Shennong and the Yellow Emperor. Emperor Shennong is credited with compiling “Shennong’s Herbal,” an ancient text documenting the medicinal properties of numerous herbs, while the Yellow Emperor, one of five revered emperors in Chinese history, authored “The Yellow Emperor’s Book of Internal Medicine.” Both texts extensively discuss the use of herbs and aromatics for healing and well-being.

Both texts mention several aromatic herbs valued for their therapeutic properties.

Among these aromatic herbs are:

1. Ginger (Zingiber officinale): Used to improve digestion and alleviate nausea.
2. Cinnamon (Cinnamomum verum): Known for its warming properties and its ability to support circulation.
3. Peppermint (Mentha piperita): Utilized to provide a cooling effect and relieve headaches and digestive discomfort.

Renowned Physicians

Ancient Chinese physicians, such as Bian Que and Hua Tuo, developed sophisticated diagnostic and treatment methods rooted in TCM principles.
Bian Que, a renowned physician during the Warring States period, was known for his expertise in pulse diagnosis and herbal remedies.
Hua Tuo, a physician during the Eastern Han dynasty, pioneered surgical techniques and herbal anesthesia, including the use of Ma Fei San (the ingredients are thought to have included cannabis and datura), an aromatic herbal mixture, to induce sedation during surgery.

Han Dynasty

During the Han dynasty (202 BCE to 220 CE), advancements in distillation techniques revolutionized various industries, including beverage production and the extraction of aromatic essences from herbs.


Ancient Taoist beliefs, dating back to the third or fourth century BCE, emphasized the spiritual significance of perfumes and fragrances. Taoist philosophy held that the extraction of a plant’s fragrance could liberate its essence or soul, aligning with the broader concept of harmony between humans and nature. Taoist beliefs therefore are of immense interest to scholars who research the history of aromatherapy, and the opportunity for further research is tantalising.

Conclusion – The History of Aromatherapy and Essential Oils in Ancient China

In traditional Chinese culture, there was little distinction between the use of aromatic herbs for perfumery and medicinal purposes. All fragrances were believed to possess medicinal properties capable of harmonizing Qi and promoting overall health and well-being.



The History of Aromatherapy and Essential Oils in Ancient Greece

Introduction to The History Of Aromatherapy and Essential Oils in Ancient Greece

The history of aromatherapy and essential oils cannot exclude Ancient Greece. The Ancient Greeks were instrumental in developing Western culture, which includes the development of the use of aromatic herbs as perfumes, fragrances, incense and their use as medicines. The Ancient Greeks assimilated knowledge from other ancient empires and formed a bedrock of knowledge that influenced the development of Western society.

Greece, as we recognize it today, began as a collection of city-states, including prominent ones like Sparta and Athens.

In the earliest days of Ancient Greece, various herbs were utilized, benefiting from the region’s agreeable climate and fertile soil. Common herbs likely included mint, olive, Greek mountain tea, parsley, fennel saffron, liquorice, marshmallow, mandrake, and henbane.
These herbs found use in medicine and religious rites, primarily by priests, midwives, and healers. Certain herbs were associated with specific gods and were used in religious ceremonies, either as incense or burnt offerings.

Trade and interactions between Greek city-states and neighbouring civilizations like the Akkadian Empire, Babylonian Empire, and ancient Egypt facilitated the exchange of knowledge and resources.

Babylonian texts mention the use of cedar extract, while herbs were often combined into poultices for healing purposes. Incense, created by crushing plant resin, played a significant role in religious rituals.

Knowledge sharing was integral, encompassing medicinal practices, religious rituals, and herbal lore.

Aromatherapy, though likely practiced mainly during religious ceremonies, preceding a unified Greek empire, would have exposed people to the aromatic effects of various herbs and plants.

Healing and religious practices intertwined, with midwives relying on ancestral herbal knowledge, and common folk using simple herbal remedies for minor ailments.
Severe cases would be referred to priests or renowned healers, involving invocations to gods, incense, herbal preparations, and even surgery.

Different Historical Periods

Understanding the history of aromatherapy and essential oils in ancient Greece requires tracing the region’s development and available resources:

Minoan and Mycenaean Period

The Minoan period, originating in Crete around 2600 BCE, and the subsequent Mycenaean period saw the emergence of early Greek civilizations. However, evidence regarding the use of aromatics or essential oils during these periods is scarce.

Greek Dark Ages

The Greek Dark Ages (1200 BCE to 800 BCE) marked a period of limited record-keeping, with the exception of the city state of Athens. Similarly, evidence regarding the history of aromatherapy in this era remains elusive.

Archaic Period

The Archaic period (800 BCE to 480 BCE) witnessed a population increase, the rise of city-states, and conflicts with the Persian Empire. Persian influence was likely introduced to Greek medicine, cosmetics, and perfumes.
We finally start to come across documented evidence surrounding the history of aromatherapy.
Certain practices developed during this period, which sparked investigation in to furthering medical science, and this included the use of aromatic herbs, incense, and aromatherapy:

Worship of Apollo

Apollo Greek god of healing

The worship of Apollo, the Greek god of healing and disease, most probably dates back to 800 BCE (within the Archaic period), evidenced by temples erected in his honour, notably in Delphi. Apollo’s epithet “oulious” or healer suggests a focus on healing aspects of the god, with rituals involving sacred herbs like Bay Laurel, Cypress, Date Palm, and Rocket Larkspur. While records are sparse, the worship of Apollo likely incorporated herbal practices, given the common use of Bay in temple rituals.

Asclepius ‘The Healer’

Asclepius Greek God of Healing

Asclepius, mentioned in Homer’s epics as a skilled doctor, became a central figure in Greek healing traditions.

Mythically associated with Apollo and supposedly taught by the centaur Chiron, Asclepius was deified around 400-390 BCE, with temples dedicated to him, possibly the first hospitals in Greece.
Patients would sleep in these temples; priests would interpret patient’s dreams as messages from Asclepius and base treatment protocols on these interpretations.
Temples could feature healing springs, and non-venomous snakes were commonly found within the sacred precincts, symbolising Asclepius.

Rod or Staff of Asclepius

The staff of Asclepius remains a symbol of modern medicine, although it was commonly used to symbolise Asclepius as a god, and the Asklepian practice of using snakes, hypnotic substances and aromatic teas in healing rituals in Ancient Greek practices.

Classical Period of Ancient Greece – The History of Aromatherapy and Essential Oil

Aromatherapy, the art and science of utilizing aromatic plant extracts for therapeutic purposes, flourished in the classical period of ancient Greece.
The Greeks believed in the concept of ‘pneuma,’ the vital breath or life force, which they believed permeated all aspects of existence. Essential oils, extracted from plants through distillation, enfleurage or maceration, were considered carriers of this vital essence, capable of influencing both the body and the spirit.

Aromatherapy, although not recognized as a formal practice in the modern sense, was nevertheless integrated into Greek medicine and healing rituals.

Numerous influential figures emerged during this period, significantly shaping the development of aromatherapy, the utilization of essential oils, and fragrant herbs.
Foremost among these figures was Hippocrates, whose extensive body of work and clinical practice left an indelible mark on the field of medicine for centuries to come. Below, we delve into the contributions of Hippocrates and other notable figures from this era.


Hippocrates the Father of Medicine

Hippocrates , considered the father of medicine, likely belonged to a family devoted to Asclepius. His works affect the history of aromatherapy and mention the therapeutic use of thermal waters, massages with oils and unguents, and baths infused with aromatic spices.
The Hippocratic Corpus recommends myrrh oil and litharge ( a natural form of lead), for the treatment of various ailments, highlighting the widespread use of aromatic substances in ancient Greek medicine.

Greek physicians, such as Asclepiades of Bithynia and Galen of Pergamon, prescribed aromatic herbs and oils as part of their medical treatments. These healers believed in the healing properties of fragrant botanicals, which were often administered through inhalation, massage, or aromatic baths.

Herbs like lavender, rosemary, and thyme were prized for their medicinal properties and were used to alleviate symptoms ranging from headaches to digestive issues.

Alexander the Great

Alexander the Great

Alexander the Great, one of Western history’s most influential figures, left a profound impact on many aspects of Ancient Greek civilization, including aromatherapy, medicine, herbal understanding, doctors, and essential oils:

1. Expansion of Knowledge

Alexander’s conquests led to the expansion of Greek influence across vast territories, bringing about cultural exchanges with civilizations such as Egypt, Persia, and India. These interactions facilitated the exchange of knowledge, including medicinal practices and herbal lore, enriching Greek medicine with new insights and botanical resources.

2. Integration of Eastern Practices

During his campaigns in the East, Alexander encountered diverse healing traditions, including those of Ayurveda in India and traditional Persian medicine. These encounters likely influenced Greek medical practices, leading to the incorporation of new herbs, oils, and therapeutic techniques into the Greek healing repertoire.

3. Royal Patronage

As a patron of learning and the arts, Alexander supported the development of medical schools and the training of physicians. His patronage encouraged the study of medicine and pharmacology, fostering advancements in understanding the therapeutic properties of essential oils and botanical remedies.

During the time of Alexander the Great, several famous herbalists, doctors, and scientists made significant contributions to the understanding and practice of medicine, herbalism, and aromatherapy:


Megasthenes was a Greek historian and diplomat whose work contributed to the history of aromatic plants and aromatherapy, and who served as an ambassador to the court of Chandragupta Maurya in India during Alexander’s campaigns. He documented the flora and fauna of the Indian subcontinent, including its rich botanical resources and traditional healing practices.


Erasistratus was a prominent Greek physician and anatomist who lived during the Hellenistic period. Although he did not directly serve under Alexander, his contributions to the understanding of human anatomy and physiology laid the groundwork for advancements in medical science during this era.

Hermippus of Smyrna

Hermippus was a Greek philosopher and physician and had an influence on the history of aromatherapy, as he was known for his studies on herbal medicine and natural remedies. He made significant contributions to the field of pharmacology, documenting the therapeutic properties of essential oils and botanical extracts.

4. Herbal Exploration

Alexander’s expeditions involved extensive exploration of diverse ecosystems, allowing Greek naturalists and physicians to discover new medicinal plants and essential oils. The botanical specimens collected during these journeys contributed to the expansion of herbal knowledge and the development of materia medica.


Nearchus was a Greek admiral and explorer who accompanied Alexander on his voyage along the Indian Ocean coast. He documented the medicinal properties of plants encountered during the expedition, shedding light on the therapeutic potential of botanicals native to regions such as modern-day Pakistan and India.

5. Promotion of Greek Medicine – History of aromatherapy and essential oils

Alexander’s reign coincided with the flourishing of Greek medicine, particularly the teachings of Hippocrates and his followers. Hippocratic medicine emphasized the importance of natural remedies, diet, and lifestyle in maintaining health, laying the foundation for the holistic approach that underpins aromatherapy and herbal medicine.

6. Cultural Exchange

The establishment of Alexandria in Egypt as a cultural and intellectual centre under Alexander’s successor, Ptolemy I, facilitated the exchange of ideas between Greek, Egyptian, and Eastern scholars. This cultural melting pot provided fertile ground for the cross-pollination of medical knowledge, including aromatherapy practices and herbal remedies.

7. Legacy of Hellenistic Medicine

The ancient Greeks had a profound influence on the history of aromatherapy, essential oils, medicine, surgery and the development of perfumes and fragrances.

The Hellenistic period following Alexander’s death witnessed the consolidation and dissemination of medical knowledge across the vast territories of his empire. Greek physicians, such as Galen, continued to refine the understanding of anatomy, physiology, and pharmacology, further advancing the practice of aromatherapy and herbal medicine.

In summary, Alexander the Great’s conquests, patronage of learning, and promotion of Greek medicine contributed to the enrichment and expansion of aromatherapy, herbal understanding, and medical practices in Ancient Greece and beyond. His legacy endured through the Hellenistic period and laid the groundwork for subsequent developments in the field of holistic healing.

Perfume and Fragrances

We cannot discuss the history of aromatherapy in Ancient Greece without mentioning perfumes and fragrances.

Perfumes in Ancient Greece were highly valued for their aromatic properties and were used extensively in various aspects of society. Wealthy Greeks would often adorn themselves with fragrant oils and perfumes, not only for personal grooming but also as a symbol of status and refinement. Perfumes were applied to the body, clothing, and hair, and they were considered essential for social occasions such as banquets, festivals, and religious ceremonies.

Perfumes were crafted using a variety of natural ingredients, including herbs, spices, flowers, and resins. Some of the commonly used herbs and botanicals in Greek perfumery included:

Rosemary: Known for its refreshing and invigorating scent, rosemary was a popular choice in Greek perfumes. Its aromatic properties were believed to stimulate the mind and uplift the spirits.

Lavender: With its calming and soothing fragrance, lavender was often used in perfumes and oils for both its scent and its purported therapeutic benefits. It added a sense of tranquillity to perfumes worn during social gatherings and religious ceremonies.

Myrtle: Considered sacred to the goddess Aphrodite, myrtle was highly esteemed in Ancient Greek perfumery. Its sweet and slightly spicy aroma made it a favoured ingredient in perfumes used by both men and women.

Sage: Revered for its cleansing and purifying properties, sage was sometimes incorporated into perfumes to add depth and complexity to their fragrance profiles. It lent a touch of earthiness and sophistication to Greek perfumes.

Thyme: With its herbaceous and aromatic scent, thyme was another herb commonly used in Greek perfumery. Its refreshing fragrance made it suitable for both everyday wear and special occasions.

Mint: Known for its cooling and refreshing aroma, mint was often used in Greek perfumes to impart a sense of freshness and vitality. It was especially popular during hot summer months.

These herbs, along with other botanicals such as rose, jasmine, and citrus fruits, were meticulously combined to create intricate perfume compositions that captured the essence of Ancient Greek culture and society.

Religious Significance

The history of aromatherapy in Ancient Greece has to included the use of aromatic herbs, resins , incense and burned herbal offerings in religious rites or practices.

The use of perfumes extended beyond mere personal adornment.

In religious rituals, perfumes made of herbal extracts and essential oils were employed to honour the gods and evoke a sense of sacredness. Temples and altars were often adorned with fragrant offerings, and the burning of aromatic incense was believed to purify the air and create an ambiance conducive to prayer and meditation. Certain fragrances were associated with specific deities, with offerings tailored to each god or goddess.

Greek Mythology and Literature

In addition to their medicinal and religious significance, perfumes and aromatherapy played a role in Greek mythology and literature. Epic poems like Homer’s “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey” often reference the use of fragrances by gods, goddesses, and mortal characters alike, highlighting the cultural importance of scent in ancient Greek society.

Overall, during the Classical Period of Ancient Greece, aromatherapy and perfume use were deeply ingrained in the fabric of daily life, serving not only practical purposes but also carrying symbolic, religious, and cultural significance.

Abundant research, exploration and the intermingling of cultures promoted and advanced the understanding of essential oils, oleo-resins, Aromatherapy, herbs and their use in medicine, perfumery and incense.

Hellenistic period of ancient Greece 323 BCE to 146 BCE

In the vibrant tapestry of Ancient Greek civilization, the Hellenistic period marked an era of extraordinary cultural exchange and innovation that influenced the history of aromatherapy.
Amidst the flourishing of philosophy, art, and science, the Greeks also cultivated a deep appreciation for the therapeutic and aromatic properties of essential oils and herbs.
Aromatherapy, the practice of using fragrant plant extracts for healing and well-being, flourished during this time, offering a glimpse into the intricate relationship between scent and health in Ancient Greece.

The Use of Essential Oils

Essential oils, volatile compounds extracted from plants, played a significant role in Hellenistic Greek society. These precious elixirs were obtained through various methods such as distillation, maceration, and enfleurage.

Greeks recognized the therapeutic potential of essential oils and used them for a myriad of purposes, including medicinal treatments, religious rituals, and personal adornment.


Aromatherapy, the art of harnessing the aromatic essences of plants for therapeutic purposes, was deeply intertwined with Greek medicine and philosophy. Practitioners believed in the holistic healing power of scent, utilizing fragrant oils to balance the body, mind, and spirit.

Aromatherapists of the Hellenistic period crafted complex blends of essential oils tailored to address specific ailments and promote overall well-being.

Scholars and Aromatherapists

Herbalism thrived in Hellinistic Greece, with scholars such as Theophrastus documenting the medicinal properties of numerous herbs and botanicals. Aromatic herbs held a special place in the history of aromatherapy in Greek herbalism, prized for their fragrance as well as their healing properties. From soothing lavender to invigorating rosemary, aromatic herbs were incorporated into remedies, perfumes, and religious offerings.

In addition to the widespread use of essential oils and aromatic herbs in Ancient Greek society, the Hellenistic period saw the emergence of notable aromatherapists, healers, and physicians who further advanced the understanding and practice of aromatic medicine.

Among these luminaries was Asclepiades of Bithynia, a renowned Greek physician who lived during the Hellenistic era. Asclepiades was a pioneer in the field of holistic medicine, advocating for the use of natural remedies, including essential oils and herbal extracts, to treat various ailments. He believed in the importance of maintaining harmony between the body, mind, and spirit, and incorporated aromatherapy into his healing practices to promote overall well-being.

Another prominent figure who influenced the history of aromatherapy in Ancient Greece was Cleopatra.

Cleopatra VII

 Cleopatra VII of Egypt, famous for her beauty and intelligence, was known to have a keen interest in perfumery and herbal medicine, utilizing fragrant oils and botanicals not only for personal adornment but also for their therapeutic benefits. She employed aromatherapy as part of her beauty regimen, harnessing the power of essential oils to maintain youthful skin and enhance her allure.

These visionary individuals, among others, played a pivotal role in shaping the practice of aromatherapy and herbalism during the Hellenistic period, leaving behind a legacy that continues to inspire and inform modern holistic approaches to health and wellness. Today, their teachings serve as a testament to the enduring wisdom of Ancient Greek civilization, reminding us of the profound connection between scent, healing, and the human experience.

Herbs Used in the Hellenistic Period

The Hellenistic period witnessed a rich tapestry of herbal knowledge and experimentation. Herbalists cultivated extensive gardens filled with a diverse array of medicinal plants, studying their properties and effects. Herbs were used in various forms, including infusions, poultices, and ointments, to treat ailments ranging from digestive disorders to respiratory ailments.

Notable Herbs and Plants

Several herbs and plants held particular significance in Hellenistic Greek culture:

Mint: Revered for its refreshing aroma and digestive properties, mint was widely used in culinary and medicinal preparations.

Myrtle: Associated with Aphrodite, the goddess of love and beauty, myrtle was prized for its sweet fragrance and symbolic significance in religious ceremonies.

Rosemary: Known for its stimulating aroma and purported memory-enhancing properties, rosemary was used in perfumes, incense, and medicinal remedies.

Lavender: Valued for its calming scent and antiseptic properties, lavender was used to alleviate stress, promote relaxation, and heal minor wounds.

Hypnotics and Other Potentially Dangerous Herbs

Various hypnotic substances were employed for medicinal and ritualistic purposes and these deserve mention in the history of aromatherapy in this era.

Among these, henbane (Hyoscyamus niger), belladonna (Atropa belladonna), and opium (Papaver somniferum) were prominently utilized. These plants contain alkaloids such as atropine and morphine, which exert potent hypnotic effects on the central nervous system.

Henbane and belladonna, both members of the nightshade family, were known for their psychoactive properties. They were often employed by ancient healers and practitioners in therapeutic concoctions and rituals aimed at inducing altered states of consciousness. Atropine, found abundantly in these plants, acts as a powerful sedative and hallucinogen, leading to states of euphoria and trance-like experiences when ingested or inhaled.

Opium, derived from the sap of the opium poppy, held a revered status in ancient Greek society. Its hypnotic and pain-relieving properties made it a valuable commodity in medicine and religious ceremonies. The active ingredient morphine, named after the Greek god of dreams, Morpheus, was cherished for its ability to induce deep sleep and alleviate suffering.

In addition to these substances, other hypnotic agents were also documented in ancient Greek texts. Mandrake (Mandragora officinarum), with its potent sedative properties, was renowned for its use in anaesthesia and divination rituals. Datura (Datura spp.), another member of the nightshade family, was revered for its hallucinogenic effects and was employed in shamanic practices and as an adjunct to religious ceremonies.

The use of these hypnotic substances in the Hellenistic period reflects the ancient Greeks’ profound understanding of the medicinal and spiritual properties of plants. While their practices may seem primitive by modern standards, they laid the foundation for the development of pharmacology and medicine, leaving a lasting legacy that continues to influence contemporary therapeutic approaches.

Conclusion – The History of Aromatherapy and Essential Oils in Ancient Greece

The history of aromatherapy, essential oils, and aromatic herbs in ancient Greece reflects a deep reverence for nature’s healing gifts and a sophisticated understanding of herbal medicine. Through the teachings of notable physicians like Hippocrates and Dioscorides, as well as the exploration and trade networks of the era, ancient Greeks cultivated a rich tradition of aromatherapy that continues to inspire practitioners and enthusiasts today.



The History of Aromatherapy and Essential Oil in the Ancient Roman Empire

Roman General in Triumph Procession

The history of aromatherapy, essential oils and aromatic herbs in ancient Rome is a captivating tale that underscores the Romans’ profound understanding of the healing potential of scent and their dedication to holistic well-being. While the earliest documented evidence of aromatherapy in ancient Rome dates back to around the 1st century CE, archaeological findings suggest that the Romans may have been familiar with the therapeutic use of aromatic substances even earlier.

One of the earliest known instances of the use of aromatherapy in ancient Rome is attributed to the Roman/Greek physician Pedanius Dioscorides, whose renowned work “De Materia Medica” detailed the medicinal properties of plants and their extracts. Dioscorides described various aromatic substances, including essential oils / extracts derived from herbs such as lavender, rosemary, and myrtle, highlighting their therapeutic benefits for both physical and mental health.

Archaeological Findings

Archaeological excavations have unearthed artifacts such as ceramic vessels and amphorae containing remnants of aromatic oils and herbal preparations, providing tangible evidence of the Romans’ engagement with aromatherapy and herbal medicine. These discoveries suggest that the use of essential oils and aromatic herbs was an integral part of Roman daily life, employed for purposes ranging from personal grooming to medical treatments and religious rituals.
Perfume bottles and containers, crafted with meticulous attention to detail and adorned with intricate designs, were cherished as prized possessions by the Roman elite:

Ceramic Amphorae

Perfume bottles (unguentarium) fashioned from fine ceramic adorned with intricate patterns and motifs were treasured for their beauty and elegance, serving as vessels for holding precious fragrances.

Silver Caskets

Luxurious caskets crafted from gleaming silver and embellished with ornate engravings were prized for their exquisite craftsmanship and served as opulent containers for storing perfumed oils and balms.

Gold Vials

Vials crafted from gleaming gold and adorned with precious gemstones were symbols of wealth and status, reserved for the most esteemed members of Roman society who sought to indulge in the finest perfumes and fragrances.

Hygiene and Bathing

Roman Baths

Many depictions, pottery shards, mosaics and painted vessels show the history of aromatherapy in Ancient Rome.
The Romans’ appreciation for the healing power of scent is further evidenced by their elaborate bathing rituals, where aromatic oils and herbal infusions were used to cleanse and invigorate the body and mind. Public baths, adorned with fragrant flowers and scented oils, served as communal spaces for relaxation and rejuvenation, reflecting the Romans’ belief in the therapeutic benefits of aromatherapy.

Perfumes, Fragrances and Hygiene

Roman Glass Perfume Container

Moreover, the Romans’ penchant for perfumery and personal grooming attests to their sophisticated understanding of fragrance and its ability to evoke emotions and enhance well-being.

Hygiene was a cornerstone of Roman society, and the Romans believed that cleanliness was essential for good health.
Aromatherapy and perfumery played a significant role in Roman hygiene practices, with scented oils and fragrant herbs being used to cleanse the body, freshen the breath, and perfume the skin.

The Romans were renowned for their elaborate bathing rituals.
Public baths, known as thermae, were not only places for physical cleansing but also social gatherings where individuals could relax and rejuvenate their senses with aromatic oils and herbal infusions.


We cannot exclude mention of perfumes and fragrances in the history of aromatherapy in this era.

Fragrances were said to have been used excessively in ancient Rome:

The Emperor Tiberius is said to have complained about the cost of a perfume that may have been known as “Regale Unguentum”. The cost was said to be in the region of 100 million sestertii, an enormous amount, even for an emperor.

Regale Unguentum (“Royal Perfume”) seems to have been originally used by the Parthian kings in the 1st century CE.

Nero is also said to have had an artificial rain made for guests at a banquet at his private ‘domus’, consisting of rose petals and his favourite fragrance.

Women are shown anointing their hair with scented and softened beeswax (much as they are said to have done in Ancient Egypt), to cool and scent the head and skin.

Strong perfumes were used to scent clothes, hair and skin by men and women, most probably to eliminate the stench of the surrounding ‘rabble’, refuse and sewerage in the streets of the cities.

Ingredients of perfumes differed according to what was currently available and what could be imported. Common ingredients included lavender, roses, pomegranates, quinces, grapes, basil, rosemary and basil. Resins were usually costly as they were imported and not always available: such as resin of myrrh, frankincense, benzoin etc.


The wafting scents of perfumed oils and aromatic balms filled the air, signaling the refinement and sophistication of a society that prized the art of perfumery as an essential aspect of personal grooming and social etiquette. Perfumes were used to keep the stench of the streets at bay, and nobles and the middle class (most probably known as ‘the equites’) would use fragrances and perfumes to scent their bodies, hair and surroundings.

Therapeutic Application of Essential Oils in the History of Aromatherapy in Ancient Rome

Like many aspects of Roman culture, the use of essential oils and aromatherapy was heavily influenced by Greek culture. The Romans admired the Greeks’ knowledge and expertise in medicinal practices and adopted many of their techniques, including the use of aromatic substances for healing purposes.

Aromatherapy was utilized in various therapeutic applications in ancient Rome. Essential oils extracted from plants such as lavender, rosemary, and chamomile were used to alleviate aches and pains, soothe sore muscles, and promote relaxation and sleep.

Aromatic herbs were also ingested or applied topically for their medicinal properties, addressing ailments ranging from digestive disorders to respiratory conditions.

Herbal Hypnotics and Poisons

In ancient Rome, the use of herbal hypnotics, poisons, and noxious aromatic substances played a multifaceted role in society, ranging from medicinal applications to darker purposes such as assassination and witchcraft. This provides a more nefarious element to the history of aromatherapy in this era. The Romans possessed a sophisticated understanding of the properties of various plants and utilized them for both beneficial and heinous ends.

Herbal Hypnotics

Roman physicians and healers were well-versed in the use of herbal hypnotics to induce sleep or alleviate pain. Plants such as mandrake (Mandragora officinarum), poppy (Papaver somniferum), and henbane (Hyoscyamus niger) were commonly employed for their sedative properties. These substances were administered in various forms, including decoctions, tinctures, and poultices, to treat ailments ranging from insomnia to anxiety.


Poisoning was not uncommon in ancient Rome, whether for political intrigue, personal vendettas, or as a method of execution. A wide array of toxic plants were readily available and utilized for their lethal properties. Deadly nightshade (Atropa belladonna), hemlock (Conium maculatum), and wolfsbane  / aconite (Aconitum napellus) were among the most notorious poisons employed by the Romans.

Noxious Aromatic Substances

The use of foul-smelling or noxious aromatic substances held a peculiar place in ancient Roman society. Such substances were often utilized for ritualistic or ceremonial purposes, as well as in the context of magic and superstition. For instance, burning sulfur and other malodorous materials was believed to ward off evil spirits or serve as offerings to the gods. Similarly, certain herbs with pungent odors, such as asafoetida (Ferula assa-foetida), were used in magical rituals or as protective talismans.

Cultural and Legal Context

The use of herbal hypnotics, poisons, and noxious aromatic substances in the history of aromatherapy of ancient Rome was deeply intertwined with the cultural and legal norms of the time. While some substances were openly used for medicinal purposes and were administered by trained physicians, others were clandestinely employed for nefarious deeds and were subject to strict legal prohibitions.

Legacy and Influence

The legacy of herbal hypnotics, poisons, and noxious aromatic substances in the history of aromatherapy of ancient Rome continues to captivate modern imagination, inspiring literature, art, and popular culture. The intricate knowledge of plant properties and their applications, as well as the darker aspects of their use, serve as a reminder of the complex relationship between humans and the natural world throughout history.

Herbalists, Healers and Physicians

Aromatherapy was embraced by a cadre of esteemed herbalists, healers, and physicians in ancient Rome, who recognized the potent healing potential of essential oils and aromatic herbs. Among these luminaries were:

Pedanius Dioscorides

Revered as one of the foremost authorities on medicinal plants in ancient Rome, Dioscorides authored the seminal work “De Materia Medica,” which detailed the therapeutic properties of hundreds of herbs and botanicals. Dioscorides extensively documented the use of aromatic herbs such as lavender, rosemary, and chamomile for their analgesic, anti-inflammatory, and sedative effects, laying the foundation for their widespread adoption in Roman pharmacology.


Galen, a prominent Roman physician and philosopher, was renowned for his comprehensive understanding of anatomy, physiology, and pharmacology. Influenced by the teachings of Hippocrates and Aristotle, Galen advocated for the use of aromatherapy and herbal medicine in the treatment of various ailments. He prescribed essential oils extracted from aromatic herbs as part of his therapeutic regimen, recognizing their ability to alleviate pain, reduce inflammation, and promote overall well-being.

Cleopatra the Alchemist

Cleopatra VII

Cleopatra the Alchemist, also known as Cleopatra VII of Egypt, was a celebrated herbalist and alchemist who made significant contributions to the history of aromatherapy. Inspired by the holistic healing traditions of ancient Egypt, Cleopatra incorporated aromatic herbs and essential oils into her medicinal preparations, harnessing their healing properties to treat a wide range of health conditions.

Soranus of Ephesus

Soranus, a renowned Roman gynaecologist and obstetrician made his mark in the history of aromatherapy in ancient Rome by advocated for the use of aromatherapy and herbal remedies in women’s health care. He prescribed aromatic herbs such as lavender and chamomile to alleviate menstrual cramps, reduce anxiety during childbirth, and promote postpartum recovery, recognizing their efficacy in enhancing women’s health and well-being.

Pliny the Elder

Pliny the Elder, a Roman naturalist and author, documented the medicinal properties of aromatic herbs and essential oils in his encyclopaedic work “Natural History.” Drawing upon the knowledge of ancient Greek and Roman physicians, Pliny extolled the virtues of herbs such as lavender, rosemary, and chamomile for their therapeutic benefits, advocating for their use in treating a variety of ailments.

These esteemed herbalists, healers, and doctors, among others, played pivotal roles in popularizing the use of aromatic herbs, aromatherapy, and essential oils in ancient Rome. Their contributions not only enriched Roman pharmacology but also laid the groundwork for the continued exploration and appreciation of botanical medicine throughout the ages.

Development of Treatises and Texts

In ancient Rome, the development of medical treatises and texts marked a significant advancement in the understanding and application of therapeutic practices, including the use of essential oils and aromatic herbs. Roman physicians and scholars, influenced by the medical traditions of Greece and Egypt, embarked on a quest to compile comprehensive compendiums of medicinal knowledge, laying the foundation for the dissemination of herbal wisdom throughout the Roman Empire.

Pliny the Elder

Among the most notable figures in Roman natural history and medicine was Pliny the Elder, whose monumental work “Naturalis Historia” (Natural History) stands as one of the most extensive encyclopedias of ancient knowledge. In this vast compendium, Pliny meticulously documented the medicinal properties of countless plants, including aromatic herbs and essential oils. His writings provided detailed descriptions of plant morphology, geographical distribution, and therapeutic uses, serving as a valuable resource for physicians and herbalists seeking to harness the healing powers of nature.


Galen, a towering figure in Roman medicine, made significant contributions to the understanding of anatomy, physiology, pharmacology and the history of aromatherapy. Drawing upon the works of Hippocrates and other Greek physicians, Galen authored numerous treatises and texts that explored the therapeutic properties of herbs, spices, and aromatic substances. His writings provided practical guidance on the preparation and administration of herbal remedies, emphasizing the importance of individualized treatment based on the unique constitution of each patient.


While Dioscorides was a Greek physician, his influential work “De Materia Medica” exerted a profound influence on Roman medicine and pharmacology. This seminal treatise, translated into Latin during the Roman era, served as a comprehensive guide to medicinal plants and their uses. Dioscorides meticulously cataloged hundreds of herbs, including aromatic species such as lavender, rosemary, and chamomile, detailing their therapeutic properties and methods of preparation and making a huge contribution to the history of aromatherapy in ancient Rome.

Herbal Compendiums

In addition to individual physicians and scholars, Roman medical schools and academies produced a wealth of herbal compendiums and pharmacopeias that synthesized the collective knowledge of the era. These texts, often compiled by teams of physicians and herbalists, provided practitioners with practical guidance on the identification, cultivation, and pharmacological actions of medicinal plants, including aromatic herbs used in aromatherapy and perfumery.

Dissemination of Knowledge

The proliferation of medical treatises and texts in ancient Rome facilitated the dissemination of herbal knowledge across the vast territories of the Roman Empire. Physicians, apothecaries, and healers relied on these authoritative sources to diagnose illnesses, prescribe remedies, and administer treatments, ensuring the widespread availability of herbal medicines and aromatherapy practices throughout the ancient world.


In summary, the development of medical treatises and texts in ancient Rome, spearheaded by eminent scholars such as Pliny the Elder and Galen, played a pivotal role in advancing the understanding and application of herbal medicine and aromatherapy. These writings served as invaluable repositories of botanical knowledge, guiding generations of practitioners in the therapeutic use of essential oils and aromatic herbs to promote health, healing, and well-being.

Religious and Ritualistic Uses

The use of aromatics in religious rites and cultural practices form an integral part of the history of aromatherapy in ancient Rome

In ancient Rome, the use of aromatic herbs, incense, and fragrances held profound symbolic significance in religious ceremonies and rituals, serving as conduits for spiritual connection and divine communication.

Fragrant Incense Offerings

Incense played a central role in Roman religious practices, where it was burned as offerings to the gods in temples and sacred spaces. Fragrant resins such as frankincense, myrrh, and benzoin were commonly used, releasing aromatic smoke that was believed to purify the air and elevate prayers to the heavens. The act of burning incense was seen as a gesture of reverence and devotion, inviting divine favour and blessings upon the worshipers.

Symbolism of Aromatic Herbs

Aromatic herbs held special symbolism in Roman religious rites and ceremonies, with each herb carrying its own unique associations and meanings. Myrtle, for example, was associated with Venus, the goddess of love and fertility, and was often used in rituals celebrating marriage and childbirth. Rosemary, with its invigorating scent and evergreen foliage, was linked to remembrance and protection, making it a favoured herb for offerings and blessings.

Purification and Sanctification

Aromatic herbs and incense were also used for purifying and sanctifying sacred spaces, temples, and altars. Prior to religious ceremonies, priests would burn fragrant herbs such as sage, thyme, and juniper to cleanse the area of negative energies and impurities, ensuring that the space was conducive to spiritual communion with the divine.

Festival Celebrations

During religious festivals and celebrations, the air would be filled with the intoxicating scents of aromatic herbs and incense, creating an atmosphere of reverence and jubilation. Processions honouring the gods would be accompanied by the burning of fragrant offerings, infusing the festivities with a sense of sacredness and solemnity.

Funerary Rites

Aromatic herbs and incense were also used in funerary rites and ceremonies to honour the deceased and facilitate their journey into the afterlife. Fragrant oils and perfumes were applied to the bodies of the deceased as a final gesture of respect and purification, while incense was burned to guide their spirits to the realm of the ancestors.

In essence, the use of aromatic herbs, incense, and fragrances in ancient Rome was deeply intertwined with religious beliefs and practices, serving as powerful tools for spiritual expression, purification, and divine communion. These aromatic offerings not only enriched the sensory experience of worship but also served as potent symbols of devotion and piety in Roman religious life.

Conclusion – The History of Aromatherapy and Essential Oils in the Ancient Roman Empire

The Romans’ embrace of essential oils, aromatherapy, and aromatic herbs reflects their holistic approach to health and well-being. From their emphasis on hygiene and bathing rituals to their use of fragrant oils in medicinal treatments and religious ceremonies, the Romans’ appreciation for the power of scent has left a lasting legacy that continues to influence modern aromatherapy practices.

Arabian empire

The History of Aromatherapy and Essential Oils in the Ancient Arabian Empires

The emergence of the Arabian Empire following the decline of the Roman Empire ushered in a rich era of cultural exchange and scientific advancement, particularly in the realm of herbal medicine and aromatherapy. Situated at the crossroads of diverse civilizations, the Arabian Empire had access to a wealth of knowledge from ancient Greece, Rome, China, and India, which laid the groundwork for the refinement of traditional healing practices.

The Arabian empires had a huge impact on the history of aromatherapy in Western civilisation.

At the heart of Arabian herbal medicine were essential oils, extracted through distillation.

While the concept of distillation was known to the ancient Greeks and Romans, it was the Persian physician Avicenna, also known as Ibn Sina, who elevated the technique to new heights of precision and efficacy during the 10th and 11th centuries CE. Avicenna’s groundbreaking contributions to the distillation process not only enhanced the extraction of essential oils but also expanded the repertoire of aromatic herbs and their therapeutic applications.

In addition to Avicenna, several other notable healers, herbalists, doctors, and researchers contributed to the advancement of distillation and the use of aromatic herbs in the ancient Arabian Empire.

One such figure is Al-Kindi (c. 801–873 AD), often referred to as the “Philosopher of the Arabs.” Al-Kindi made significant contributions to various fields, including medicine and chemistry. His writings on alchemy and distillation techniques laid the groundwork for further developments in extracting essential oils and refining herbal preparations.

Another prominent figure is Al-Razi (c. 865–925 AD), known in the West as Rhazes. Al-Razi was a pioneering physician, pharmacist, and philosopher who made significant advancements in pharmacology and herbal medicine. His meticulous experiments with distillation techniques led to the discovery of new medicinal compounds derived from aromatic herbs, contributing to the expansion of the pharmacopeia in the Arabian Empire.

Furthermore, Jabir ibn Hayyan (c. 721–815 AD), known as Geber in the West, made significant contributions to alchemy and chemistry. Jabir’s treatises on alchemy, known as the “Seven Books of the Chemical Art,” explored distillation methods and the purification of substances, laying the groundwork for advancements in herbal distillation and the production of essential oils.

These scholars, along with numerous others whose names may be lost to the history of aromatherapy, formed a vibrant intellectual community within the Arabian Empire. Through their collaborative efforts and relentless pursuit of knowledge, they enriched the fields of medicine, chemistry, and herbalism, leaving a lasting legacy that continues to influence modern practices in aromatherapy and holistic healing.

Use of aromatic herbs in the Arabian Empire

In the history of aromatherapy in ancient Arabian society, essential oils and aromatic herbs held multifaceted roles, ranging from medicinal to religious and ceremonial. Physicians and healers studied the properties of various botanicals, prescribing them to treat ailments ranging from the physical to mental distress. Herbal remedies were prepared with utmost care, with specific herbs chosen for their unique healing properties and synergistic effects when combined with other ingredients.

Herbal Recipes

While specific recipes for ancient Arabian aromatic herbal medicinal preparations may not be extensively documented, historical texts and accounts provide insights into the types of ingredients and methods used during that era. Here are some examples of ancient Arabian herbal medicinal preparations that likely incorporated aromatic herbs:

Frankincense and Myrrh Balm

Frankincense and myrrh, two of the most prized aromatic resins in ancient Arabian culture, were often combined to create healing balms. To make a balm, these resins would be melted together with a carrier oil, such as olive or almond oil, over gentle heat. The resulting mixture would then be strained and allowed to solidify, creating a soothing balm that could be applied to wounds, inflammation, or skin conditions.

Cinnamon and Ginger Infusion

Cinnamon and ginger were highly valued for their warming and digestive properties. To prepare an infusion, dried cinnamon sticks and ginger root would be steeped in hot water, allowing their aromatic compounds to infuse into the liquid. This aromatic infusion could then be consumed to aid digestion, alleviate nausea, or soothe respiratory ailments.

Rosemary and Thyme Decoction

Rosemary and thyme were esteemed for their antimicrobial and tonic properties. To make a decoction, dried rosemary and thyme leaves would be simmered in water for an extended period, extracting their beneficial compounds. This herbal decoction could be ingested as a medicinal tea to support immune function, improve circulation, or alleviate respiratory congestion.

Lavender and Chamomile Salve

Lavender and chamomile were revered for their calming and anti-inflammatory properties. To create a salve, dried lavender flowers and chamomile blossoms would be infused in melted beeswax and a carrier oil, such as coconut or jojoba oil. Once strained and cooled, this aromatic salve could be applied topically to soothe skin irritations, promote relaxation, or relieve muscle tension.

Peppermint and Eucalyptus Inhalation

Peppermint and eucalyptus were valued for their invigorating and decongestant properties. To prepare an inhalation, fresh or dried peppermint leaves and eucalyptus leaves would be steeped in hot water, releasing their aromatic vapours. Individuals could then inhale the steam to clear nasal passages, alleviate headaches, or promote mental clarity.

These are just a few examples of the types of aromatic herbal medicinal preparations that may have been used in ancient Arabian society. The exact formulations and methods would have varied based on regional traditions, available resources, and individual preferences.

Hypnotic Substances and Poisons

In the expansive and culturally rich Arabian Empire, the utilization of hypnotic substances, poisons, and noxious aromatic herbs played a significant role in various aspects of life, from medicine to warfare. Drawing from the region’s diverse flora and the knowledge of ancient civilizations, Arabian societies developed a sophisticated understanding of plant-based remedies and toxic agents.

Hypnotic Substances used in the History of Aromatherapy during the Ancient Arabian Era

Arabian healers and physicians were adept at harnessing the sedative properties of certain plants to induce sleep or alleviate discomfort. In addition to valerian, chamomile, and lavender, herbs such as Coriandrum sativum (coriander) and Rosa damascene (Damask rose) were commonly employed for their calming effects. These herbs were incorporated into teas, infusions, and aromatic oils, offering relief from insomnia, anxiety, and nervous disorders. Moreover, the opium derived from the opium poppy (Papaver somniferum) was highly valued for its potent hypnotic properties, often used in medicinal blends and preparations to induce profound relaxation and alleviate pain.


The Arabian Empire, like many ancient civilizations, was no stranger to the use of poisons for political intrigue, assassination, and self-defense. Alongside the toxic substances derived from plants like the strychnine tree and the venom of scorpions, opium was not only esteemed for its therapeutic benefits but also wielded as a potent poison when administered in excessive amounts. Its powerful sedative effects, when misused, could lead to lethargy, respiratory depression, and ultimately, death.

Cultural Significance and Influence

The utilization of hypnotic substances and poisons in the Arabian Empire reflects the region’s rich tapestry of cultural traditions, medical practices, and spiritual beliefs. The knowledge and expertise of Arabian healers and herbalists contributed to the development of pharmacology and botany, leaving an enduring legacy that continues to influence contemporary medicinal practices and cultural rituals throughout the Middle East and beyond.


The use of perfumes are integral to the history of aromatherapy in any era.

In the ancient Arabian Empire, a variety of aromatic herbs and botanicals were used to create perfumes that were highly valued for their exotic scents and therapeutic properties. Some of the herbs commonly used for perfumery in the ancient Arabian Empire include:

Frankincense: Derived from the resin of the Boswellia tree, frankincense was one of the most prized aromatic substances in ancient Arabia. Its rich, resinous aroma was often used as a base note in perfumes, adding depth and complexity to fragrance compositions.

Myrrh: Another resinous substance, myrrh was valued for its warm, earthy scent. It was often used in perfumery to impart a balsamic quality to fragrances and to enhance their longevity.

Rose: Roses were highly esteemed for their delicate fragrance and were cultivated in gardens throughout the Arabian Peninsula. Rose petals and rose oil were commonly used in perfumery to create floral scents that were both luxurious and uplifting.

Jasmine: Jasmine flowers exude a sweet, intoxicating aroma that was beloved in ancient Arabia. Jasmine absolute was frequently used in perfumery to create exotic floral fragrances that evoked sensuality and romance.

Sandalwood: Sandalwood is prized for its warm, woody scent with subtle floral undertones. It was often used as a base note in perfumes, adding a creamy richness and depth to fragrance compositions.

Oud: Also known as agarwood, oud is a resinous wood that produces a rich, complex aroma with smoky, balsamic, and animalic facets. Oud was highly coveted in ancient Arabia and was often used as a central note in perfumes, imparting a sense of luxury and opulence.

Favourite Perfumes

Examples of favourite perfumes used in the ancient Arabian Empire include:

Misk: Misk, or musk, was a popular perfume ingredient in ancient Arabia. It is derived from the musk glands of certain animals and has a warm, sensual aroma that was highly prized.

Attar: Attar refers to traditional Arabian perfumes made from the distillation of natural botanical ingredients, such as flowers, herbs, and spices. These perfumes were often blended with a base of oil or alcohol and were worn on the skin or clothing.

Bakhoor: Bakhoor is a type of incense made from aromatic resins, woods, and spices that are blended together and then burned to release their fragrance. It was commonly used in ancient Arabian households for its pleasant scent and purifying properties.

Khalta: Khalta is a type of solid perfume that was popular in ancient Arabia. It is made by combining fragrant oils with waxes or fats to create a scented paste that can be applied directly to the skin.

These perfumes were not only valued for their delightful scents but also for their symbolic and ritualistic significance in ancient Arabian culture. They were often used in religious ceremonies, as well as in daily life, to enhance personal grooming and create a sense of luxury and refinement.

Incense – History of Aromatherapy in the Ancient Arabian Era

In the ancient Arabian Empire, incense played a significant role in religious ceremonies, cultural rituals, and daily life. Incense was made through a meticulous process that involved blending aromatic resins, gums, spices, and herbs, which were then shaped into pellets, cones, or sticks for burning.

Here’s an overview of how incense was made in ancient Arabia, along with examples of recipes and names of incense used:

Gathering Ingredients: Incense ingredients were sourced from a variety of aromatic plants and natural substances, including frankincense, myrrh, benzoin, cedarwood, sandalwood, cinnamon, cloves, and dried herbs such as rosemary, lavender, and thyme.

These ingredients were collected from the wild or cultivated in gardens and then carefully harvested to preserve their aromatic properties.

Preparation and Grinding: Once gathered, the raw materials were cleaned and dried to remove any impurities. They were then ground into fine powders using mortars and pestles or other grinding tools. Grinding the ingredients helped release their aromatic oils and enhance their fragrance.

Mixing and Blending: After grinding, the aromatic powders were mixed and blended together according to specific recipes and formulas. Different combinations of ingredients were used to create unique fragrances with varying scents and therapeutic properties. Some recipes were closely guarded secrets, passed down through generations within families or religious institutions.

Binding Agents: To form incense pellets, cones, or sticks, binding agents such as gum arabic, honey, or resinous substances were added to the powdered mixture. These binding agents helped hold the incense ingredients together and allowed them to be shaped into uniform forms.

Shaping and Drying: The blended mixture was then shaped into the desired form, such as small pellets, cones, or sticks. These shapes were often molded by hand or pressed into molds to achieve consistency in size and shape. The shaped incense was then left to dry thoroughly, allowing the binding agents to harden and the fragrances to meld together.

Curing and Aging: Some incense recipes required a curing or aging process to fully develop their fragrance and character. The shaped incense was stored in a cool, dry place for a period of time, allowing the aromas to mature and intensify.

Examples of Names of Incense

Examples of names of incense used in the ancient Arabian Empire include:

Bakhoor: As previously mentioned, a fragrant blend of wood chips, resins, spices, and floral extracts, bakhoor was commonly used as incense in Arabian households and religious ceremonies.

Luban: Luban, or frankincense, was one of the most prized incense resins in ancient Arabia. It was burned as an offering to the gods and used for purification rituals.

Dhuna: Dhuna was a type of incense made from a blend of aromatic herbs, spices, and resins. It was burned to create a pleasant fragrance and purify the air.

Samh: Samh was a fragrant resin obtained from the Boswellia tree and used as incense in ancient Arabia. It had a sweet, balsamic aroma and was often burned during religious ceremonies and spiritual practices.

Oudh: Oudh, or agarwood, was highly valued for its rich, complex fragrance and was used as incense in ancient Arabian palaces and temples. It had a deep, woody aroma with hints of sweetness and spice.

These examples represent just a few of the many types of incense used in the ancient Arabian Empire, each with its own unique fragrance and cultural significance.

Religious Use

The use of aromatic substances in religious rituals and practices is integral to the history of aromatherapy.

In the ancient Arabian Empire, the religious use of aromatic herbs, incense, and perfumes held profound significance, playing a central role in worship, rituals, and spiritual practices.

Various gods and deities were worshipped using fragrant materials, symbolizing reverence, purification, and the communication of prayers to the divine. Here’s an overview of the religious use of aromatic substances in the ancient Arabian Empire and the gods associated with them:

Frankincense and Myrrh Offerings

Frankincense and myrrh were among the most sacred and widely used aromatic substances in ancient Arabian religious practices. These fragrant resins were burned as incense offerings to various gods and deities, symbolizing purification, protection, and the elevation of prayers to the heavens. Frankincense, in particular, was associated with the sun god and was often burned in temples dedicated to solar worship.

Bakhoor and Perfumed Oils

Bakhoor, a blend of aromatic woods, resins, and spices, was used as incense in religious ceremonies and rituals throughout the ancient Arabian Empire. Perfumed oils, made from aromatic herbs and botanicals, were also used to anoint idols, altars, and sacred objects, infusing them with divine fragrance and sanctity. These fragrant offerings were believed to invoke the presence of gods and goddesses, fostering spiritual connection and devotion.

Rose and Jasmine Offerings

Roses and jasmine, with their exquisite fragrance and delicate beauty, were associated with love, beauty, and fertility in ancient Arabian mythology. These flowers were often used in religious ceremonies dedicated to goddesses of love and fertility, such as Al-Uzza and Al-Lat. Offerings of rose petals and jasmine garlands were made to honour these goddesses and seek their blessings for abundance and prosperity.

Sandalwood and Oudh in Temple Worship

Sandalwood and oudh, prized for their rich, woody aroma, were used in temple worship and rituals dedicated to various gods and goddesses in ancient Arabia. These aromatic woods were burned as incense offerings to deities, such as Al-Maqah, a goddess of the moon, and Al-Lat, the god of war.

Spices and Herbs in Sacrificial Offerings

Spices and herbs, such as cinnamon, cloves, and cardamom, were often included in sacrificial offerings to gods and goddesses in ancient Arabian religious ceremonies. These fragrant ingredients were believed to enhance the potency of prayers and rituals, infusing them with divine favour and blessing. They were also used to flavour ceremonial foods and beverages consumed during religious feasts and festivals.

Overall, the religious use of aromatic herbs, incense, and perfumes in the ancient Arabian Empire reflected a deep reverence for the divine and a belief in the transformative power of fragrance to invoke spiritual connection and divine presence. Through the burning of incense, the anointing of sacred objects, and the offering of fragrant materials, worshipers sought to honor and communicate with the gods and goddesses who held sway over their lives and destinies.

Conclusion – The History of Aromatherapy and Essential Oils in the Ancient Arabian Empires

In conclusion, the ancient Arabian Empire stands as a testament to the transformative power of cultural exchange and scientific innovation. Through the pioneering work of figures like Avicenna, the distillation of essential oils and the utilization of aromatic herbs reached unprecedented levels of sophistication, leaving an indelible mark on the history of herbal medicine and aromatherapy.

The Dark Ages

The History of Aromatherapy and Essential Oils in the Middle Ages

Dark Ages Block Print

During the Middle Ages, often referred to as the Dark Ages, Europe experienced a period of profound socio-political upheaval and cultural stagnation. However, amidst the turmoil, the use of aromatic herbs, essential oils, and aromatherapy persisted, albeit in a modified form influenced by the prevailing religious and societal beliefs.

One of the most significant contributors to the preservation and advancement of herbal medicine, and the history of aromatherapy during this era were the monks of medieval Europe. Housed within the secluded confines of monasteries, monks cultivated extensive herb gardens and meticulously documented herbal knowledge in manuscripts known as herbals. These monastic herbalists not only tended to the sick within their communities but also continued to study and refine herbal remedies passed down from ancient times.

Prominent Figures

Prominent figures among medieval European healers and herbalists include:

Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179)

A German Benedictine abbess, mystic, and polymath, Hildegard von Bingen made significant contributions to herbal medicine and natural healing. She authored several influential works, including “Physica” and “Causae et Curae,” which contained detailed descriptions of medicinal herbs and their therapeutic properties. Hildegard’s holistic approach to health emphasized the interconnectedness of the body, mind, and spirit.

Nicholas Culpeper (1616-1654)

Although slightly later than the traditional Middle Ages, Culpeper’s work had a significant impact on herbal medicine and the history of aromatherapy in Europe. An English physician, herbalist, and astrologer, Culpeper translated and adapted ancient texts, making herbal knowledge more accessible to the general population. His renowned work, “The English Physician,” provided detailed information on the medicinal uses of herbs and their astrological correspondences.

Paracelsus (1493-1541)

While not strictly a medieval figure, Paracelsus’s contributions bridged the gap between medieval and Renaissance medicine. A Swiss-German physician, alchemist, and philosopher, Paracelsus challenged the traditional humoral theory of medicine and advocated for the use of specific herbal remedies to treat diseases. He emphasized the importance of observing nature and the individual patient’s constitution in medical practice.

In addition to these notable individuals, countless unnamed healers, monks, doctors, and herbalists across medieval Europe contributed to the preservation and dissemination of herbal knowledge. Despite the prevailing superstitions and persecution of herbalists as witches, the use of aromatic herbs, essential oils, and aromatherapy persisted as essential components of medical and personal care practices.

Hygiene and Therapeutic Uses

Aromatics were highly valued not only for their ability to mask unpleasant odors in a society where bathing was considered sinful but also for their perceived antibacterial and pesticidal properties. Common aromatic herbs used during this time included lavender, rosemary, thyme, and sage, which were employed in various forms such as infusions, ointments, and sachets.

Herbal Treatments

During the Middle Ages, despite the decline in the holistic approach of Hippocrates, the use of aromatic herbs and herbal remedies remained prevalent, particularly among monks, herbalists, and healers who preserved and passed down medicinal knowledge. While specific recipes may vary depending on region and availability of herbs, some commonly used medicinal aromatic herbal recipes during the Middle Ages include:

Four Thieves Vinegar

Legend has it that during the plague outbreaks in the Middle Ages, four thieves in France protected themselves from infection by using a vinegar infused with aromatic herbs. This vinegar was made by steeping a blend of aromatic herbs such as rosemary, thyme, sage, lavender, and garlic in vinegar for several weeks. The resulting vinegar was believed to have antibacterial and antiviral properties and was used as a disinfectant and antiseptic wash.

Herbal Poultices

Herbal poultices were popular remedies for treating wounds, bruises, and skin infections during the Middle Ages. A common poultice recipe involved blending aromatic herbs such as chamomile, calendula, comfrey, and plantain with hot water or oil to form a paste. This herbal paste was then applied directly to the affected area to promote healing and reduce inflammation.

Herbal Infusions and Decoctions

Herbal infusions and decoctions were widely used for internal ailments such as digestive issues, respiratory infections, and headaches. Infusions were made by steeping aromatic herbs in hot water, while decoctions involved simmering herbs in water to extract their medicinal properties. Popular aromatic herbs used in infusions and decoctions included peppermint, lemon balm, chamomile, elderflower, and yarrow.

Herbal teas made from aromatic herbs were commonly consumed for their therapeutic properties. Aromatic herbs such as sage, mint, lemon verbena, and hyssop were steeped in hot water to create flavourful and aromatic beverages that were believed to aid digestion, calm the nerves, and boost the immune system.

Herbal Tinctures

Herbal tinctures were alcoholic extracts of aromatic herbs used to treat various ailments. A common tincture recipe involved macerating aromatic herbs such as echinacea, ginger, garlic, and elderberry in alcohol for several weeks to extract their medicinal compounds. Tinctures were administered in small doses to alleviate symptoms of colds, flu, and other infections.

Aromatic Inhalations

Aromatic inhalations were used to alleviate respiratory symptoms and promote relaxation during the Middle Ages. A popular method involved adding aromatic herbs such as eucalyptus, thyme, rosemary, and lavender to hot water and inhaling the steam. This aromatic steam was believed to clear congestion, soothe the throat, and ease breathing.

These are just a few examples of the medicinal aromatic herbal recipes used during the Middle Ages. While the scientific understanding of herbal medicine was limited during this time, the use of aromatic herbs and remedies played a vital role in maintaining health and treating ailments in medieval Europe.

Perfumes and Fragrances

During the Middle Ages, aromatic herbs were highly valued for their use in perfumery, both for personal grooming and for religious ceremonies. While the exact herbs and formulations varied depending on availability and regional preferences, several aromatic herbs were commonly used for making perfumes during this time period. Here are some examples:

Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia)

Lavender was prized for its sweet, floral aroma and was commonly used in perfumery during the Middle Ages. Its fragrance was believed to have calming and soothing properties, making it popular for scenting linens, bathwater, and personal perfumes.

Rosemary (Salvia rosmarinus)

Rosemary has a refreshing, herbaceous scent with hints of pine and citrus. In the Middle Ages, it was often used to create invigorating perfumes and aromatic waters. Rosemary was also believed to have purifying and cleansing properties, making it a popular choice for perfuming ritual spaces and religious objects.

Sage (Salvia officinalis)

Sage has a warm, earthy aroma with spicy undertones. It was used in perfumery during the Middle Ages to create fragrances that were both uplifting and grounding. Sage was also valued for its antimicrobial properties, and its fragrance was thought to ward off evil spirits and promote clarity of mind.

Thyme (Thymus vulgaris)

Thyme has a strong, herbaceous scent with a hint of sweetness. It was used in perfumery to create fragrances that were both aromatic and medicinal. Thyme was believed to have antiseptic properties, and its fragrance was used to purify the air and promote respiratory health.

Mint (Mentha spp.)

Mint has a fresh, cooling scent with bright, herbaceous notes. It was used in perfumery during the Middle Ages to create invigorating and refreshing fragrances. Mint was also valued for its stimulating properties, and its fragrance was believed to promote mental clarity and alertness.

Basil (Ocimum basilicum)

Basil has a sweet, spicy aroma with hints of clove and anise. It was used in perfumery to create fragrances that were both uplifting and comforting. Basil was also believed to have protective properties, and its fragrance was used to ward off negative energies and promote emotional well-being.

These aromatic herbs were often combined with other botanical ingredients such as flowers, woods, and spices to create complex and harmonious perfume compositions. Perfumes made from these herbs were used for personal adornment, as well as for religious rituals, celebrations, and special occasions during the Middle Ages.

Names of Medieval Perfumes

Some of the perfumes used during this time period included:

“Aqua Mirabilis”: This aromatic water, also known as “miracle water,” was made by distilling a blend of aromatic herbs such as lavender, rosemary, and sage. Aqua Mirabilis was believed to have therapeutic properties and was used for bathing, perfuming the body, and refreshing linens.

“Rosewater”: Rosewater, obtained by steam distilling rose petals, was a luxurious perfume used by nobility and clergy during the Middle Ages. It was often added to baths, cosmetics, and perfumes for its delicate floral scent and skin-soothing properties.

“Herbal Sachets”: Herbal sachets were small pouches filled with aromatic herbs such as lavender, rosemary, and thyme. These sachets were placed in clothing drawers, under pillows, or hung in rooms to impart a pleasant fragrance and repel moths and insects.

Ambergris“: Ambergris, a rare and prized substance derived from the intestines of sperm whales, was used as a fixative in perfumery during the Middle Ages. It imparted a musky, earthy scent to fragrances and helped prolong their longevity.

Pomanders“: Pomanders were fragrant balls made by enclosing aromatic herbs and spices such as cloves, cinnamon, and nutmeg in a perforated container. These scented balls were carried or worn to mask unpleasant odors and protect against disease.

“Incense”: Incense, made from aromatic resins, gums, and herbs, was burned in religious ceremonies and rituals during the Middle Ages. Fragrances such as frankincense, myrrh, benzoin, and copal (resin from any number of trees)were commonly used to purify spaces, invoke blessings, and create a sacred atmosphere.

In conclusion, while the Middle Ages presented numerous challenges to the advancement of medical knowledge, the continued efforts of monks, herbalists, perfumers and healers helped to preserve and adapt ancient herbal traditions, laying the foundation for future developments in herbal medicine and aromatherapy.

The Renaissance

The History of Aromatherapy and Essential Oils in the Renaissance of Europe

Aromatherapy in the Renaissance

The Renaissance marked a significant period of revival in the study and application of holistic approaches to medicine, including the use of aromatic herbs and essential oils for healing. Amidst this resurgence of interest, notable figures emerged who made groundbreaking contributions to the development of aromatherapy and essential oils.

People of Interest in this period of the History of Aromatherapy and Essential Oils

Paracelsus, born Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim in 1493, stands out as a pivotal figure during the Renaissance period and in the history of aromatherapy in Western civilisation. He rejected the prevailing medical theories of his time, which relied heavily on ancient Greek and Roman texts, and instead advocated for a more empirical approach to medicine. Paracelsus recognized the value of folk medicine and embraced the use of natural remedies, including aromatic herbs and essential oils, in the treatment of illness.

Paracelsus’s exploration of aromatic herbs and essential oils was guided by the principle of “like cures like,” a concept that laid the foundation for modern homeopathy. He believed that plants contained inherent healing properties that could be harnessed to treat various ailments. Paracelsus conducted extensive experiments with botanical substances, including distilling essential oils from aromatic herbs, to develop novel treatments for diseases.

One of Paracelsus’s most significant contributions to medicine was his use of essential oils in the treatment of leprosy. Leprosy, a highly contagious and debilitating disease, had long baffled medical practitioners and was considered incurable. Paracelsus’s innovative approach, which included the application of essential oils such as lavender, rosemary, and clove, proved remarkably effective in alleviating symptoms and improving the condition of leprosy patients.

In addition to Paracelsus, other philosophers, doctors, and herbalists during the Renaissance period also made noteworthy advancements in the field of aromatherapy and essential oils. They conducted extensive botanical studies, documented the medicinal properties of aromatic herbs, and developed sophisticated methods for extracting essential oils.

For example, Giovanni Battista della Porta, an Italian polymath and herbalist, experimented with distillation techniques to extract essential oils from aromatic plants. His work contributed to the refinement of the distillation process and the production of high-quality essential oils for medicinal use.

Distillation of Essential Oils

Similarly, Leonardo da Vinci, renowned for his artistic genius, also had a keen interest in botany and herbal medicine. He conducted botanical studies and documented the medicinal properties of various plants, including aromatic herbs. Da Vinci’s meticulous observations laid the groundwork for future scientific inquiry into the therapeutic potential of aromatic substances.

Aromatic Herbal treatments

During the Renaissance, aromatic herbal treatments were widely used for a variety of medical conditions, reflecting a revival of interest in holistic healing methods. Physicians, herbalists, and apothecaries relied on a diverse array of aromatic herbs to create remedies that were believed to promote health and alleviate ailments. Here are some examples of medical aromatic herbal treatments used during the Renaissance:

Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia): Lavender was a versatile herb widely used for its calming and antiseptic properties. During the Renaissance, lavender-infused preparations, such as lavender water and lavender oil, were used to treat headaches, insomnia, anxiety, and skin conditions. Lavender was also burned as incense to purify the air and promote relaxation.

Rosemary (Salvia rosmarinus): Rosemary was valued for its stimulating and invigorating properties. Renaissance physicians prescribed rosemary preparations, such as rosemary tea and rosemary oil, to improve memory and concentration, stimulate circulation, and alleviate muscle pain. Rosemary was also used topically to soothe sore muscles and joints.

Sage (Salvia officinalis): Sage was revered for its antimicrobial and astringent properties. During the Renaissance, sage was used as a gargle to soothe sore throats and mouth ulcers. Sage tea was also consumed to aid digestion, reduce inflammation, and alleviate menopausal symptoms. Additionally, sage was burned as incense to purify the air and dispel negative energy.

Thyme (Thymus vulgaris): Thyme was prized for its antiseptic and expectorant properties. Renaissance physicians prescribed thyme preparations, such as thyme tea and thyme syrup, to treat respiratory infections, coughs, and bronchitis. Thyme was also used externally as a poultice or compress to promote wound healing and relieve inflammation.

Peppermint (Mentha x piperita): Peppermint was valued for its cooling and digestive properties. Renaissance herbalists recommended peppermint preparations, such as peppermint tea and peppermint oil, to alleviate indigestion, nausea, and flatulence. Peppermint was also used topically to relieve headaches and muscle tension.

Chamomile (Matricaria chamomilla): Chamomile was renowned for its calming and anti-inflammatory properties. During the Renaissance, chamomile preparations, such as chamomile tea and chamomile oil, were used to promote relaxation, improve digestion, and soothe skin irritations. Chamomile was also burned as incense to induce sleep and reduce anxiety.

Angelica (Angelica archangelica): Angelica was valued for its carminative and diaphoretic properties. Renaissance herbalists prescribed angelica preparations, such as angelica tea and angelica tincture, to treat digestive disorders, menstrual cramps, and respiratory infections. Angelica was also used externally to promote sweating and relieve rheumatic pain.

These are just a few examples of the aromatic herbal treatments used during the Renaissance. The use of aromatic herbs in medicine during this period reflected a holistic approach to healing, integrating botanical remedies with other therapeutic modalities to promote health and well-being.

Perfumes and the use of Aromatic herbs for Fragrances

Perfumes are an integral part of the history of aromatherapy and essential oils.

During the Renaissance, perfumes played a significant role in personal grooming, social etiquette, and religious ceremonies. Aromatic herbs and botanicals were carefully crafted into fragrances that were worn as adornments and used to scent clothing, linens, and living spaces.

Here are some examples of perfumes, aromatic herbs used in perfumes, and names of perfumes commonly used during the Renaissance:

Rosewater: Rosewater, obtained by steam distilling rose petals, was a popular perfume used by both men and women during the Renaissance. It had a delicate floral scent and was often applied to the skin, hair, and clothing for its refreshing and uplifting aroma.

Aqua Mirabilis: Aqua Mirabilis, also known as “miracle water,” was a fragrant water infused with aromatic herbs and spices. It was used as a perfume, as well as a medicinal tonic and disinfectant. Aqua Mirabilis contained a blend of herbs such as lavender, rosemary, sage, betony and thyme, creating a complex and invigorating fragrance.

Ambergris: Ambergris, a rare and prized substance derived from the intestines of sperm whales, was used as a fixative in perfumery during the Renaissance. It had a musky, earthy scent and was often added to fragrances to enhance their longevity and depth.

Pomanders: Pomanders were fragrant balls made from aromatic herbs and spices encased in a perforated container. They were worn or carried to mask unpleasant odors and protect against disease. Pomanders contained a blend of aromatic ingredients such as cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, and dried flowers, creating a rich and spicy fragrance.

Sachet Powders: Sachet powders were finely ground mixtures of aromatic herbs and spices used to scent clothing and linens. They were made from ingredients such as lavender, rose petals, cloves, cinnamon, and orris root. Sachet powders were sprinkled onto fabrics or enclosed in sachets to impart a pleasant fragrance and repel moths and insects.

Rose Perfume: Perfumes made from rose petals were highly prized during the Renaissance for their exquisite fragrance. Rose perfumes were made by macerating rose petals in alcohol or oil to extract their aromatic compounds. They had a rich, floral scent and were worn as a luxurious adornment by nobility and clergy alike.

Notable Perfumers of the Period

Catherine de' Medici

Catherine de’ Medici: She was not only a noblewoman but also a significant patron of the arts and culture during the Renaissance. Catherine de’ Medici is often credited with popularizing the use of perfumes in Europe. She brought her knowledge of perfumery from her native Italy to the French court when she married Henry II of France in 1533.
While Catherine de’ Medici herself wasn’t a perfumer, she played a crucial role in promoting the art of perfumery and influencing its trends during the Renaissance.

These perfumes and aromatic products enriched daily life during the Renaissance, adding sensory delight, elegance, and sophistication to personal grooming and social interactions.

Substances Used for Hypnotic Effects, as Sedatives and Poisons

The Renaissance witnessed the continued use of substances known for their hypnotic and sedative effects. Opium, derived from the opium poppy (Papaver somniferum), remained a popular remedy for pain relief and inducing sleep. Its use was widespread despite growing awareness of its addictive properties. Other substances, such as mandrake (Mandragora officinarum) and henbane (Hyoscyamus niger), both known for their hallucinogenic and sedative effects, were utilized cautiously due to their toxicity.


Poisons maintained their ominous presence in Renaissance society, employed for a variety of purposes ranging from assassination to cosmetics. Arsenic, derived from minerals such as realgar and orpiment, was a favored poison due to its potency and ease of access. Other toxic substances included belladonna (Atropa belladonna), hemlock (Conium maculatum), and deadly nightshade (Atropa belladonna), all of which were used in various forms for nefarious purposes.

Use of Incense and Aromatic Herbs

During the Renaissance, the history of aromatherapy includes the use of incense and aromatic herbs in religious ceremonies and rituals. This remained a prominent practice, reflecting the spiritual significance attributed to fragrant offerings and purification rituals. Churches, cathedrals, and religious institutions utilized incense and aromatic herbs to create sacred atmospheres, enhance devotion, and symbolize spiritual purification.

Here are some examples of the use of incense and aromatic herbs in religion during the Renaissance, along with examples of the herbs and incense commonly employed:

Frankincense and Myrrh: Frankincense and myrrh, two of the most revered aromatic resins, were widely used in religious rituals during the Renaissance. These fragrant resins were burned as incense to symbolize offerings to divine entities and to create a sense of reverence and holiness. Frankincense, derived from the Boswellia tree, had a sweet, woody aroma, while myrrh, obtained from the Commiphora tree, had a balsamic, earthy scent. Both resins were believed to have purifying and sanctifying properties, making them integral to religious ceremonies.

Lavender and Rosemary: Lavender and rosemary, with their fresh, herbaceous scents, were commonly used as aromatic herbs in religious settings during the Renaissance. These fragrant herbs were often scattered on church floors or burned as incense to create a fragrant and sacred environment. Lavender and rosemary were associated with purification, protection, and spiritual renewal, making them ideal for use in religious rituals and ceremonies.

Sage and Thyme: Sage and thyme, known for their antimicrobial and cleansing properties, were also used in religious ceremonies during the Renaissance. These aromatic herbs were burned as incense or infused in holy water to purify sacred spaces and consecrate religious objects. Sage and thyme were believed to ward off negative energies and evil spirits, making them essential components of religious rituals aimed at spiritual protection and purification.

Rose Petals and Jasmine: Rose petals and jasmine flowers, prized for their exquisite fragrance and beauty, were used in religious ceremonies and devotional practices during the Renaissance. These fragrant flowers were often scattered on altars, used to adorn religious icons, or incorporated into incense blends to enhance the sensory experience of worship. Rose petals and jasmine were associated with love, devotion, and spiritual illumination, making them potent symbols of divine grace and beauty.

Benzoin and Copal: Benzoin and copal resins were also employed as incense in religious rites during the Renaissance. These aromatic resins had warm, balsamic scents and were used to create fragrant smoke offerings during prayers, blessings, and rituals. Benzoin and copal were believed to purify the air, dispel negative energies, and facilitate spiritual communion, making them valuable tools in religious worship and devotion.

The use of incense and aromatic herbs in religion during the Renaissance exemplified the profound spiritual significance attributed to fragrant offerings and purification rituals. These fragrant substances were revered for their ability to elevate consciousness, evoke reverence, and facilitate communion with the divine, enriching religious practices and fostering spiritual devotion.

Conclusion – The History of Aromatherapy and Essential Oils during the Renaissance of Europe

Cultural and Scientific Influence

The Renaissance was a period of immense cultural and scientific exchange, during which knowledge of medicinal herbs, aromatherapy, hypnotic substances, sedatives, and poisons was disseminated and expanded upon.

Physicians and herbalists drew upon classical texts, such as those of Dioscorides and Galen, as well as newly translated works from the Arabic world, to refine their understanding of herbal remedies and medicinal practices. Additionally, advancements in chemistry and pharmacology led to the identification and isolation of active compounds within plants, further shaping the use of these substances.


The Renaissance legacy in the realm of herbal medicine, aromatherapy, and pharmacology endures to this day. While many Renaissance beliefs and practices have been supplanted by modern science, the period’s contributions laid the foundation for the development of modern medicine and pharmacology. The continued exploration of aromatic herbs and their therapeutic properties reflects an enduring fascination with the natural world and its potential to heal and harm.

Modern Day

The history of Aromatherapy and Essential Oils in Modern Times

Aromatherapy, as we understand it in modern times, owes much of its development to key figures who have shaped its practices and popularized its use. However, the roots of modern aromatherapy can be traced back to the work of  a French chemist and perfumer:

Rene Maurice Gattefosse: Gattefosse is credited with coining the term “aromatherapy” in 1937. Although he was not initially aligned with the natural health movement, Gattefosse became fascinated by the therapeutic properties exhibited by essential oils. His famous anecdote involving lavender oil, where he discovered its remarkable healing effects on his burnt hand, became a pivotal moment in the development of aromatherapy. This incident led him to explore the medicinal potential of essential oils and their interaction with the body’s chemistry.

Dr. Jean Valnet: Building upon Gattefosse’s pioneering work, Dr. Jean Valnet, a French physician and aromatherapist, further advanced the use of essential oils in healthcare during the Second World War. Valnet treated injured soldiers with essential oils, demonstrating their efficacy in wound healing and infection control. His experiences during the war contributed significantly to the recognition of aromatherapy as a legitimate therapeutic modality.

Marguerite Maury: In the 1950s, Marguerite Maury, often regarded as the “mother of modern aromatherapy,” introduced innovative techniques for applying essential oils therapeutically. She diluted essential oils in carrier oils and incorporated massage into her practice, following a Tibetan technique that emphasized applying oils along the nerve endings of the spinal column. Maury also pioneered the concept of individually prescribed blends of essential oils tailored to the specific needs of her clients, further personalizing aromatherapy treatments.

Robert Tisserand: Tisserand’s contributions to aromatherapy are immense. He played a pivotal role in popularizing aromatherapy through his writings, teachings, and advocacy for safe and effective practices. Tisserand co-founded the Tisserand Institute, dedicated to educating healthcare professionals and the public about aromatherapy. His book, “The Art of Aromatherapy,” published in 1977, remains a seminal work in the field, providing comprehensive guidance on the therapeutic use of essential oils.

Development of Distillation Techniques

The history and development of distillation techniques for essential oils have undergone significant advancements in the modern era, influenced by both scientific discoveries and the expertise of skilled distillers. Here’s an overview of the key milestones and individuals who have contributed to the evolution of distillation techniques for essential oils:

Advancements in Distillation Techniques

Modern distillation techniques for extracting essential oils have evolved from ancient methods, such as enfleurage and maceration, to more sophisticated processes involving steam distillation, hydrodistillation, and solvent extraction.
Steam distillation, in particular, is one of the most widely used methods for extracting essential oils from plant material. It involves passing steam through the plant material, which vaporizes the essential oils, followed by condensation to collect the aromatic compounds.

Famous Scientists and Innovators

René-Maurice Gattefossé: While primarily known for coining the term “aromatherapy,” Gattefossé’s experiments with essential oils also contributed to advancements in distillation techniques. His research into the therapeutic properties of essential oils prompted further exploration into more efficient methods of extraction.

Dr. Jean Valnet: Valnet’s work as a physician and aromatherapist during World War II involved using essential oils for medicinal purposes. His practical experience with essential oils likely influenced the refinement of distillation techniques to ensure the preservation of therapeutic compounds.

Dr. Franz Stollár: A Hungarian chemist, Dr. Stollár made significant contributions to the field of essential oil distillation. He developed innovative distillation equipment and techniques, including vacuum distillation, which allowed for the extraction of essential oils at lower temperatures, preserving their delicate aromatic compounds.

Skilled Distillers and Industry Experts

Henri Viaud: A renowned distiller from Grasse, France, Viaud is celebrated for his expertise in the production of essential oils, particularly those used in perfumery. His mastery of traditional distillation methods and meticulous attention to detail set a high standard for quality in the essential oil industry.

Edouard Givaudan: As a member of the Givaudan fragrance and flavour company, Edouard Givaudan played a pivotal role in advancing distillation techniques for essential oils. His commitment to innovation and investment in research and development contributed to the refinement of extraction processes and the production of high-quality aromatic compounds.

Technological Advances and Research Institutions

The development of modern distillation equipment, including stainless steel stills and automated systems, has revolutionized the efficiency and scalability of essential oil production.

Research institutions and universities dedicated to botanical sciences and aromatherapy have conducted studies to optimize distillation parameters, such as temperature, pressure, and extraction time, to maximize the yield and quality of essential oils.

Overall, the history and development of distillation techniques for essential oils in the modern day are characterized by a combination of scientific inquiry, technical innovation, and traditional craftsmanship. The contributions of famous scientists, distillers, and industry experts have collectively advanced the art and science of essential oil extraction, ensuring the continued availability of high-quality aromatic essences for various applications, including aromatherapy, perfumery, and natural healthcare.

Development of Solvent Extraction

Enfleurage - essential oils

The history of solvent extraction methods for obtaining essential oils or plant extracts in the modern era is a fascinating journey marked by scientific innovation, technological advancements, and a quest for more efficient and effective extraction techniques. Here’s an overview of the development of solvent extraction methods, including the use of hexane, alcohol, and other solvents:

Early Solvent Extraction Techniques

Maceration techniques

Solvent extraction has been used for centuries, with early methods involving the use of alcohol or other organic solvents to dissolve essential oils or plant constituents from botanical material. These methods were often crude and labor-intensive, yielding relatively low quantities of extract.

Advancements in Solvent Extraction

Hexane Extraction: Hexane, a hydrocarbon solvent, became widely used in the mid-20th century for the extraction of essential oils and plant extracts. Hexane offers several advantages, including high solubility for a wide range of compounds and low cost. However, concerns about the environmental and health impacts of hexane have led to a shift towards alternative solvents in recent years.

Alcohol Extraction: Alcohol, particularly ethanol or methanol, has long been utilized for extracting aromatic compounds from plants. Alcohol extraction is favoured for its safety, versatility, and ability to preserve a broader spectrum of plant constituents compared to other solvents. This method is commonly used for producing herbal tinctures and extracts.

Critical Carbon Dioxide Extraction (CO₂ Extraction)

Critical Carbon Dioxide Essential Oils Extraction

The history and development of critical carbon dioxide (CO₂) extraction methods in essential oil manufacture represent a significant advancement in the extraction of aromatic compounds from botanical sources. Here’s an overview of the evolution of this extraction technique:

Early Developments

The use of carbon dioxide as a solvent for extracting essential oils dates back to the early 20th century. However, it wasn’t until later in the century that significant advancements in technology and understanding facilitated its practical application in essential oil extraction.

Pioneering Work

In the 1970s, researchers began exploring supercritical fluid extraction (SFE) techniques as an alternative to traditional methods like steam distillation and solvent extraction. Supercritical CO₂, a state of carbon dioxide with properties of both a gas and a liquid, emerged as a promising solvent for extracting essential oils.
Swiss researchers, in particular, made significant contributions to the development of CO₂ extraction methods. Their work laid the foundation for the commercialization of co2 extraction technology for essential oils.

Advancements in Technology

Throughout the latter half of the 20th century and into the 21st century, advancements in engineering and equipment design facilitated the refinement and scalability of CO₂ extraction systems.

High-pressure vessels, temperature controls, and specialized pumps were developed to optimize the extraction process and ensure the purity of the extracted compounds.

The ability to precisely control pressure and temperature parameters during CO₂ extraction allows for the selective extraction of specific aromatic compounds while minimizing degradation or alteration of delicate constituents.

Industrial Applications

CO₂ extraction has become widely adopted in various industries, including pharmaceuticals, food and beverage, and cosmetics, due to its ability to produce high-quality extracts with minimal solvent residue.

In the essential oil industry (although CO₂ extraction is not strictly classified as resulting in essential oil but rather an extract), CO₂ extraction is particularly valued for its ability to yield concentrated extracts rich in aroma and therapeutic properties. It is especially suitable for extracting heat-sensitive compounds that may be compromised by traditional extraction methods.

Benefits and Considerations

CO₂ extraction offers several advantages over conventional extraction methods, including higher extraction efficiencies, reduced solvent consumption, and greater selectivity for desired compounds.

However, CO₂ extraction systems can be complex and costly to implement, requiring specialized equipment and expertise. Additionally, while CO₂ is generally considered safe and environmentally friendly, the high pressures and temperatures involved in the extraction process can pose safety risks if not properly managed.

In summary, the history and development of critical CO₂ extraction methods in essential oil manufacture represent a significant milestone in the field of botanical extraction. This technology has revolutionized the production of aromatic extracts, offering improved efficiency, purity, and versatility compared to traditional extraction techniques.

Supercritical Fluid Extraction (SFE): Supercritical fluid extraction is a more recent innovation in solvent extraction. It involves using supercritical fluids, such as carbon dioxide (CO₂), as solvents under high pressure and temperature conditions. CO₂ is particularly favoured for its ability to extract delicate aromatic compounds without leaving behind solvent residues. SFE is considered a cleaner and more environmentally friendly alternative to traditional solvent extraction methods.

Modern Applications and Industry Practices

In the modern era, solvent extraction methods are widely employed in various industries, including pharmaceuticals, food and beverage, cosmetics, and aromatherapy. These methods are used to obtain concentrated extracts for use in products such as essential oils, herbal supplements, flavours, and fragrances.

Technological advancements, such as automated extraction systems and process optimization, have improved the efficiency, consistency, and safety of solvent extraction techniques. Quality control measures are also implemented to ensure the purity and potency of the extracted compounds.

Regulatory Considerations and Sustainability

Regulatory agencies, such as the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the United States and the European Medicines Agency (EMA) in Europe, have established guidelines and regulations governing the use of solvents in extraction processes to ensure consumer safety and product quality. Increasing concerns about environmental sustainability and consumer preferences for natural and organic products have prompted manufacturers to explore greener alternatives to conventional solvent extraction methods. This includes the use of eco-friendly solvents, such as ethanol derived from renewable sources, or employing solvent-free extraction techniques like steam distillation or cold pressing.

Overall, the history of solvent extraction methods in essential oil manufacture reflects a dynamic interplay between scientific progress, industry demands, and societal values. From traditional alcohol extractions to modern supercritical fluid extraction technologies, the evolution of solvent extraction techniques continues to drive innovation and shape the landscape of botanical extraction practices in the modern era.

Conclusion – The History of Aromatherapy and Essential Oils in Modern Times

Since the late 1970s and early 1980s, the popularity of aromatherapy has grown significantly, becoming an integral part of alternative and holistic health systems worldwide. Its widespread adoption can be attributed to the pioneering efforts of individuals like Gattefosse, Valnet, Maury, and Tisserand, who have illuminated the therapeutic potential of essential oils and promoted their use in enhancing health and well-being.

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